By Carlos Andres López ’10

Amid a surge of migrants seeking asylum in the United States, students and faculty from the College of Health and Social Services at NMSU went into action in spring 2019, joining a Las Cruces church in a volunteer effort to provide medical care and assistance with social services to Central American families living in limbo.

It was the first time in the college’s 40-year history that students from the School of Social Work and School of Nursing joined together to aid migrants as part of collaborative, interprofessional clinical and field-practice experiences. Their support came as communities along the U.S.-Mexico border faced a wave of Central American families fleeing violence from their home countries. And, their help continued months after the influx began to recede.

The CHSS students took their skills to El Calvario United Methodist Church, one of several organizations in Las Cruces that temporarily sheltered thousands of asylum-seekers in early 2019. CHSS instructors Randee Greenwald, assistant professor of nursing, and Olga Cabada, associate professor of social work, spearheaded the collaboration.

“This experience gave us real context and insight as to how this collaborative process between nursing and social work students can add so much more to the help they can offer working interprofessionally,” Cabada says.

Working in pairs, the students went to the church once a week over five weeks, helping with various tasks related to their fields of study for up to four hours or longer.

The nursing students conducted triage examinations on migrants and worked in partnership with an on-site health care provider. The social work students, meanwhile, helped coordinate travel arrangements and compiled lists of social service programs for migrants. They also assisted the nursing students in situations that required mental health intervention. The students also shared meals with the migrants to foster better dialogue and trust.

“I learned a lot about cultural humility, how the government systems impact asylum-seekers and U.S. citizens, and how to be a better advocate,” says Josie Schmidt ’19, one of the social work students who helped migrants at the church. 

“I also learned about the harsh conditions and experiences asylum-seekers go through in order to come to the U.S. to apply for asylum,” says Schmidt, who graduated in May 2019 with a master’s degree in social work and started working for the Aggie Health and Wellness Center in October 2019 providing counseling services. 

Like Schmidt, most of the students who volunteered at El Calvario in spring 2019 graduated. But two students in the social work graduate program began yearlong internships at the church in August 2019 as part of their field-practice training, continuing the work of the previous students.

The situation is much different than earlier in 2019. Due to current immigration policy, the number of asylum-seekers coming into Las Cruces and other border communities for transitional shelter has dropped drastically. At the height of this year’s influx, El Calvario housed an average of 60 asylum-seekers, mostly families with children, per week. That number has since dwindled down to the single digits as a result of U.S. policy forcing migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims play out in court.

According to Cabada, the two new graduate students working with the church are planning a visit to Ciudad Juárez to help asylum-seekers during their internships.

“Looking back on this experience,” Greenwald says, “we got to meet and listen to asylum-seekers, hear their stories, and learn about the conditions that caused them to leave their countries. In the time we shared, they were respected, they were heard and they were cared for.”

As an NMSU social work graduate student, Josie Schmidt works on a laptop to find social service programs for the asylum-seekers at the El Calvario United Methodist Church in March 2019.

Randee Greenwald (left), assistant professor in NMSU’s School of Nursing in the College of Health and Social Services, talks with George Miller, pastor at El Calvario United Methodist Church, before examining an asylum-seeker in March 2019.